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Johnston, Philip (14 Sept. 1892-11 Sept. 1978), proponent of use of the Navajo code-talker system in World War II, was born in Topeka, Kansas, the son of William Riley Johnston, a Presbyterian missionary, and Margaret Wray. His family moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, to work on a Navajo reservation in 1896. Playing with Navajo children, he quickly learned the language and customs of the tribe, although his fluency in the language has been called in question by one scholar, who wrote, "He could carry on conversations and understand simple directions, much like immigrants who learn to speak pidgin English, but he never mastered the complex Navajo tongue" (McClain, p. 24). Philip's father promoted tribal interests and founded a mission near Leupp, Arizona. However limited the nine-year-old Philip's mastery of the language may have been, he was fluent enough to serve as interpreter in a conference between the Navajo leaders and President Theodore Roosevelt when his father traveled to Washington, D.C., to plead for the expansion of reservation land in 1901. From the age of twelve Johnston worked at various trading posts in Indian Territory. He had little formal education as a child but recalled spending a month in school when the family first moved to Flagstaff and later receiving some tutoring from mission teachers. He attended the West Jersey Academy in Bridgetown, New Jersey, for a year, and in 1909 entered Northern Arizona Normal School (now Northern Arizona University), in Flagstaff, from which he graduated four years later. In 1915-1916 he studied at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California, where he majored in English.

During his school years, Johnston kept in touch with his Navajo friends on the reservation and often acted as a court interpreter there. In March 1918 he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served with the 319th Engineering Corps. He trained at Camp Fremont, in Menlo Park, California, before being posted to France, where he spent the next two years constructing barracks. After his discharge he enrolled in the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, receiving a civil engineering degree in 1925, and took a job with the Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering. He designed storm drains for the water department, spending five years in this position before advancing to administrative assignments. A freelance writer and photographer from his early thirties, he published more than one hundred articles--mostly travel stories and biographical sketches of people in the mining camps in California--in newspapers and magazines, including Touring Topics, Westways, and the Los Angeles Times. His book Lost and Living Cities of the California Gold Rush was published by the Automobile Club of Southern California in 1948.

Creating a Code

When the United States entered World War II, Johnston read a newspaper account of Native Americans in the army in Louisiana using their own language as a code to communicate classified information and learned that the Canadian army had employed the same procedure during World War I. Reasoning that the Navajos with whom he was acquainted might be similarly employed, he presented the idea to the Los Angeles naval office, which sent him to San Diego to propose it to Communications Officer Major James E. Jones at the headquarters of the Eleventh Naval District. Within weeks Johnston was directed to arrange a demonstration for General Clayton B. Vogel, commanding general of the Amphibious Corps of the Pacific Fleet. On 6 March 1942 Vogel wrote to the U.S. Marine Corps commandant recommending the implementation of Johnston's idea. In October of that year Johnston, with the rank of staff sergeant (later technical sergeant), returned to the Navajo reservation in Flagstaff and selected a group of recruits--later known as "the first 29"--to be trained as coders and interpreters.

As the 382nd Platoon, the first all-Navajo platoon in the U.S. Marine Corps, the Navajos Johnston recruited were then sent to a newly established Field Signal School, where, with army cryptographers under Major Jones, they developed a code based on their language. They devised a list of 211 Navajo words to which they assigned new military meanings (the native word for "hummingbird" meant "helicopter," for example, and "shark" signified "destroyer") and another list standing for the letters of the Roman alphabet with which to spell out other English words. Johnston then devised an intensive eight-week messenger training course. With this system firmly committed to memory, Navajo code talkers--whose numbers would exceed four hundred during the course of the war--served in all six marine divisions in combat in the Pacific and took part in every assault conducted from 1942 to 1945.

Controversy, Commendation

On two occasions Johnston was involved in controversial issues regarding the code-talker program. In the June 1943 issue of Arizona Highways magazine, an article appeared containing classified information about the project, and he came under suspicion for the disclosure. He denied any responsibility and was never charged. In 1944 Johnston proposed extending the use of the code-talker program to the army, and the marine corps considered this a violation of its order regarding the program's "confidential and restricted status" (McClain, p. 122). The army rejected the proposal on the grounds that "the low-grade security of such a plan would be dangerous to the operation of the AAF" (McClain, pp. 123-4), and no formal complaint was ever lodged against Johnston. That no blame attached to him in either case is attested to by his receipt in 1969 of a special congressional medal for his contribution to the Pacific campaign.

Johnston retired from the Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering in March 1950 and devoted his time to travel and writing. He maintained an interest in Native American affairs and in 1951 created the Foundation for the Higher Education for American Indians, a nonprofit organization to help finance Native American schooling, in Flagstaff. The foundation was dissolved in 1957 for lack of support, and Johnston had little public association with Native American issues after that. In 1971 he attended a reunion of sixty-nine of the original Navajo code talkers in Virginia. When he claimed in an interview to have created the first code, he was vehemently challenged in an angry confrontation, and friendly relations with his Native American associates were never restored. Johnston spent his final years in California and died in the Veterans Administration hospital in San Diego.



The major archives of material on Johnston are in the Philip Johnston Collection at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff and the Doris Duke Collection in the Marriott Library at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. A transcription of a lengthy interview with Johnston, conducted 7 Nov. 1970 by John Sylvester, is available at the latter (Doris Duke Number 954). Full documentation of Johnston's participation in World War II is in the National Archives, Military Reference Branch, Washington, D.C.; the National Archive, Suitland Reference Branch, Suitland, Md.; and the Marine Corps Historical Center, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, D.C. Many books have been written on the Navajo code talkers; see especially Sally McClain, Navajo Weapon: The Navajo Code Talkers (2002), which includes the full text of many primary sources, including Johnston's 1942 proposal; Bernice Johnston, Two Ways in the Desert: A Study of Modern Navajo-Anglo Relations (1972); and, for a detailed account of the use of code talkers in the Pacific campaign, Gordon L. Rottman, U.S. Marine Corps World War II Order of Battle: Ground and Air Units in the Pacific War, 1939-1945 (2001). A good official summary of the history of the Navajo code-talking program and Johnston's role in its development is Adam Jevec, "Semper Fidelis, Code Talkers," Prologue Magazine 33, no. 4 (Winter 2001): 270-277. An obituary is in the New York Times, 15 Sept. 1978.

Dennis Wepman

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Dennis Wepman. "Johnston, Philip";;
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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